The Great Task of Leadership

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Staub Leadership InternationalAn architect was puzzled and distressed. He was charged with building a large cathedral. He had two teams of stone masons working on some of the intricate detail around a great rose window. One team was ahead of schedule; the other was struggling and making a lot of mistakes. The architect decided to investigate.

Both teams had competent journeyman supervisors, and the team members were equally skilled in both groups. In desperation, the architect decided to speak to each man individually and ask him what he was doing. In the first group, from supervisor to mason’s assistant, all gave rather detailed and involved descriptions of what they were doing – cutting the stones, setting scaffolding, mortaring, etc. In the second group, from mason’s assistant to supervisor, all began their answers with, “I am building a cathedral.”

Which team do you think was ahead? Not surprisingly, the team of masons who were focused on the vision of building a cathedral. The vision galvanized them and helped them coordinate their efforts. They achieved what Michael Beers calls “task alignment,” wherein all members knew how all of their different tasks fed into and supported the whole enterprise. They were but a part of the greater construction force involved in building something greater and larger than their own specialized focuses. Their efforts, and the focus of their teams, were the vision of creating the cathedral.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen made by leaders in teams and organizations is that of not taking the time to formulate a vision. And even those who do formulate a vision do not do what it takes to bring that vision to life. A vision is concerned with doing the right thing. The communication and shared sense of ownership for that vision is part of doing it right.

Why have a vision? A vision is needed to inspire, orient, and align people. Obviously, if you are the CEO or senior executive of a division you are effectively crippled if you have not formulated and promulgated a vision of the collective enterprise. However, what if you are a supervisor in some subsection of a department? Do you still need a vision? You do, if you wish to function as the leader – someone who makes a difference by inspiring others to make a difference.

It is my experience that your supervisory and leadership effectiveness increases dramatically if you have developed a vision for your group and its efforts. Of course, the vision must be consistent in terms of supporting the overall mission of the organization. And, it must come from your heart and speak to the hearts of those in your area.

However, be forewarned. To craft a vision of power and substance always requires courage. It is a leap of faith, spanning the abyss between the known present and the unknown future. There is always the possibility that the vision will not come to pass, that you have committed yourself and your team publicly to a course and to a path without any guarantees, just to the bold-faced commitment.

Many organizations that Staub Leadership consultants have worked with have vision statements on their walls. Some even have them made into pocket cards that employees carry around with them. However, words on a wall or on a card do not make a vision. That only comes about when the vision is embodied and lives in the daily transactions of all employees.

This holds true for all levels within an organization. What is required is that the vision be owned and talked up, held up as a torch by multiple layers of leadership. The great task of all leadership from the architect to the scaffold builder is to capture the imaginations and passions of every leader so they feel they are working on their vision.

This post has been excerpted from my book The Heart of Leadership – 12 Practices of Courageous Leaders. It is available on Amazon.

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